More Information, Please, about Oceana’s New Solar Facility

solar_cloudsby James A. Bacon

The Department of the Navy  is collaborating with Dominion Virginia Power and the Commonwealth of Virginia to build a 21-megawatt solar energy facility at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach. The 100-acre facility, housing 179,0000 solar panels and scheduled for completion in late 2017, will supply enough electricity at peak production to power about 4,400 homes. Find the details here.

The project is good P.R. all around. Dominion, the Navy and the McAuliffe administration all get to bask in the glow of solar goodness. But the press release touches only glancingly on the economics of the project. Which makes me wonder…

The Navy was the driver, with Dominion and possibly the state (it’s not clear what the state’s role was) presumably stepping in to meet the Navy’s renewable energy mandates. Here’s what Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus had to say about the benefits of the project:

We’ve achieved $90 million in nominal energy cost savings, $62 million in energy security hardware upgrades to bases, 170 megawatts of access to power during outages, and 22 million tons of CO2 abated. And we’re just getting started.

Just a few questions:

What are “nominal” energy savings? Are they different from actual energy savings?

Why would it be considered an “achievement” to negotiate access to 170 megawatts of power during energy outages — presumably from Dominion — when Oceana already has access to Dominion’s distribution network?

How much does the project cost? How much are taxpayers paying in order to achieve 22 million tons of CO2 cuts? Are there more cost-effective ways of reducing CO2 emissions?

What are the $62 million in “energy security hardware upgrades,” and how do they factor into the calculation of benefits?

I’m on beach vacation this week, so I’m not in a position to answer those questions right now. But the fact that the press release does not mention the project cost much less the cost-per-kilowatt — information routinely released for any electrical generation project — I cannot avoid the suspicion that the Navy considered those numbers to be an embarrassment. I would think that taxpayers — including anyone whose priority is lower CO2 emissions — would want full transparency to ensure that the federal government is spending its money cost effectively.

Update: More information from Todd Flowers with Dominion…. Secretary Mabus’s remarks were referring to the Navy’s “global efforts and accomplishments. and were not meant to represent solely the Oceana project. The Navy’s benefit from Oceana will be in the form of electrical infrastructure upgrades (a new electrical feed) in exchange for our use of their land.

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15 responses to “More Information, Please, about Oceana’s New Solar Facility”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    looks like Dominion paid for it with the approval of the SCC.

    was that not in their press release?

    ” In exchange for the use of DON land, NAS Oceana will receive in-kind consideration in the form of electrical infrastructure upgrades. Dominion will build, own, operate and maintain the 21 MW DC facility for 37 years. ”

  2. These are the right questions – particularly that $62 million sounds hokey; and the “access during outages” is bull.

    Beyond that, what are the terms behind that “nominal” energy savings? “Nominal” implies some sort of standardized averaged pricing — is it based on the difference between the price the Navy is actually going to be paid by PJM for actual output to the wholesale market, or a negotiated price for assumed output credited by DVP against the Navy’s retail bill with DVP marketing the power, or something in between? Who bears the risk of equipment unavailability?

    Enjoy that family beach time!

  3. Update: More information: From Todd Flowers with Dominion…. Secretary Mabus’s remarks were referring to the Navy’s “global efforts and accomplishments. and were not meant to represent solely the Oceana project. The Navy’s benefit from Oceana will be in the form of electrical infrastructure upgrades (a new electrical feed) in exchange for our use of their land.”

    That makes sense. But questions still remain regarding the Oceana project. How much did it cost? What will be the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity produced?

  4. JOHN BR Avatar

    One very interesting fact comes from this report.
    100 acres to supply electricity for 4,400 homes (when it is light out). The Richmond MBR has close to 500,000 households. Therefore, to provide daytime electricity for the Richmond area households it would use up roughly 11,000 acres of real estate. How many more acres would ne needed for businesses, office buildings, factories, government offices etc.? A lot.
    By the way, all of the exiting gas, oil. coal plants have to stay on line 24/7 to keep the power going in case the sunlight is insufficient during the daytime and for all the other non-daylight hours.
    When you talk about places like NYC, the land used would be exponential. I hope the people in Connecticut are happy moving because much of the state would be needed for NYC solar panels. Not to mention the loss of wildlife and essential oxygen-creating trees.

    The cost savings better be huge because this does not sound environmentally-friendly to me.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    11,000 acres sounds like a lot but is is a square 4 miles on a side or 4 one-mile square parcels , one on each side of Richmond. Richmond itself . Richmond itself is 40,000 acres.

    Instead of one-mile square parcels, used land spread out over powerlines and road rights-of-ways , on the roofs of office buildings, commercial big boxes and parking lots, storm ponds, bridges, etc.

    there is quite a bit of land that solar can be co-located as well as land not useable or desireable for other purposes. There’s a ton of post-industrial land in Richmond.

    we will see this – in our lifetime – even the naysayers will!!!!!!!!

  6. LtG, we’ve had some of this conversation before. To add to what JBR wrote above, after some years in the business as an employee of VEPCO, Stone and Webster, and the industry manufacturing VEPCO’s substation/transmission/distribution products I have some understanding from both ends of the spectrum.

    It becomes very expensive to disperse either the source of or destination for power usage. If the solar panels, batteries and inverters (and mechanism to compensate for precession, if used) can be placed near where the power is needed/used it almost makes economic sense now … maybe. Otherwise not so much, I suspect.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    John B – could you go into the precession issue a little bit more?

    it sounds like we can physically and fiscally do the solar panels but there are issues with how to handle their inputs….


  8. I am reading between the lines, so what I say is based on supposition.

    The statement of “nominal” energy cost savings is probably related to the world-wide energy savings program the Navy has initiated. At Oceana Naval Air Station the Navy has engaged in a long-term Energy Savings Performance Contract that is currently saving $6 million per year in energy costs. With zero in investment the Navy has reduced energy use by 40% across more than 100 retrofitted buildings at the base. This amount is typically reported as “nominal” savings, a conservative number for the amount of energy saved, because it is hard to calculate the “actual” amount of energy that would have been used had the energy efficiency improvements not been made.

    Dominion owns and operates the solar facility because a for-profit company can make use of the solar tax credit that is unavailable to a government entity. It sounds like the “energy security hardware upgrades” are for Dominion to create a micro-grid for the base that would allow it access to the solar output even if Dominion’s local grid was down for some reason. The Department of Defense has been developing micro-grids at other bases around the world for greater energy security for critical operations.

    I would also like to clear up some of the “land use” misconception related to solar. Much of what is publicized in Virginia is the large central station solar arrays that Dominion is putting in, because those are what can be easily accomplished with the existing policies in Virginia. In many cases solar has the smallest land requirement of any method of generation. For example, the combination of energy efficiency and solar generation that is allowing ConEdison to forego a billion dollar investment in a new substation does not require any new land (even in Connecticut). Because the solar will be installed on large buildings and over parking lots, etc.

    It is a great advantage to put generation close to the load, especially when no “greenfield” construction is required. Solar requires no other real estate related to its operation. If you compared the real estate required for a new natural gas plant for example, a fair comparison would include its proportionate share of the fracking well sites, the pipeline right-of-way, the transmission line corridors, and the full plant site, not just the area occupied by the buildings.

    We need not create “straw men” to diminish options that we do not favor. We will have a mix of these generating methods for some time. Solar currently is equal to or slightly cheaper on a levelized cost of energy basis than natural gas combined cycle plants. Solar will continue to get cheaper and natural gas will only get more expensive, so the cost advantage of solar will increase in the years ahead.

    Obviously, solar is not a dispatchable resource, at least until we make more progress with energy storage or load shifting options. However, those alternatives are making rapid progress. Solar does have an advantage in that it provides affordable generation during the period when intermediate and peaking units fueled by coal, oil and natural gas are most expensive.

    We need to examine all of our options and select the best choices for the situation. Energy efficiency is nearly always the best choice over any method of new generation.

    I suspect that the deal Dominion made with the Governor to install some solar in exchange for the rate freeze that allowed Dominion to keep nearly a billion dollars that should have gone back to the ratepayers also entered in to this arrangement and the 25 MW solar installation at Norfolk.

  9. LtG, with apologies to those more recently educated than me: Precession relates to the fact that the envelope of the earth’s orbit over time exhibits a conical track with respect to its axis (think seasons of the year – it tilts).

    Solar panel installations can be stationary or can be made to position themselves mechanically in such a way as to present the greatest possible surface area to the sun based on time of day/season of the year. From your Trig you’ll remember that an oblique (cosine related) exposure to the sun would present a lessened effective area.

    To use a ridiculous example, a panel with its edge pointed at the sun would theoretically project a zero area and thus probably generate little or no energy. My best shot. Maybe someone else can explain it better.

    1. Fixed solar installations are often installed with a tilt roughly equal to the latitude of the installation. Often they are oriented to the southwest or west rather than directly south. This gains more energy in the late afternoon and early evening when the electricity is more valuable.

      Precession is a 26,000 year cycle. So the change in attitude relative to the sun changes a miniscule amount over the 30-35 year life of a solar array.

      Tracking mounts have increased in reliability and have come down in cost. Many of the larger solar installations in sunny climates are beginning to use tracking arrays to capture more energy.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    a tracking mount with full motion coupled with software models that incorporate precession would seem to be a solution.

    but I was also hearing that solar “all over” would present thousands of varying inputs to the grid unless they were routed to substations or similar facilities to coordinate.

    1. The tracking arrays do not consider precession but they do compensate for the change in sun angle north-to-south (azimuth) that varies between the winter and summer solstice because of the 23.5 degree tilt of the earth’s axis. They also track the sun east to west so the the panel is always facing the sun to capture the greatest amount of sunlight.

  11. TomH is correct that generation closer to load is better, all other things equal; but they aren’t equal. You do have to spread the collective generation over the collective load to get some efficiencies of scale and diversity. As long as you are doing that through a Grid-level high-voltage interconnection, those efficiencies matter more than distances and line losses. In other words, large, efficient solar farms in Indiana can sell to the grid wholesale energy market for less than a great many small solar devices on rooftops or highway ROWs can supply the same amount of power. That may change, or at least the difference may become less, as solar equipment costs are steadily dropping, but the advantage for big, even remote, units won’t disappear anytime soon.

    As for coordinating that solar generation, the grid operator can do it now, but the metering and communications costs are less, per kWh generated, for those bigger solar farms (same cost spread over more output), another slight advantage of size. The small solar operator can bypass the grid and connect directly to isolated loads without any metering or communications to the grid operator — but that imposes its own inefficiencies, usually much greater than paying the cost to be connected to the grid.

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    On the highway ROW or for that matter – any linear corridor – like a powerline corridor – as long as there is a powerline in that corridor and/or along the road – what would keep the solar from connecting to the powerline every mile or so (or whatever distance makes sense with linking the solar units together before dumping it to the grid)?

    1. There is a significant expense related to every connection. You need a transformer to match the output voltage with whatever transmission line to which you are attaching. Usually capacitance and voltage regulation devices, special types of circuit breakers, lightning protection and other types of equipment protection, measurement and control devices, etc. are also needed. Dealing with electricity is a complicated business. It’s not like just connecting two extension cords together.

      Connecting multiple smaller installations is usually more expensive than one larger generating source. But not as many new transmission lines and other facilities are needed if generation is closer to the load. We need a mixture of various sizes for an optimum system. Right now we think only “big”. Think of the old computer days when everything was a mainframe. Now we have large server farms, servers for individual businesses or office complexes, and connected personal computers. It is a diverse mixture that is appropriate to the needs. I think that our electrical system will begin to evolve along these lines.

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